Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prometheus bound

We would finish last night. The question was when. We got started at about 7:45.

Article 14 pertained to the Town acquiring an easement for land on Main Street where the parking garage encroaches on private property, but details are still being worked out with the land owner, and so the Select Board asked that this article be dismissed.

Article 15 – was to see if the Town would accept the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, and to ask that the Town Manager create long range plans for financing two of its recommendations – one for two stations, and the other for three. The Chair of the Fire Station Study Committee described the group’s work to date. Last time the committee came before TM was to request money to hire a consultant to study the current system, consider its future needs, and identify possible sites for a new station and the associated costs. TM appropriated $20,000 for that purpose. The committee issued an RFP and received 11 responses. They chose a company and developed a report, and the summary of that was presented last night. (The full 46-page report is available here.) The gist of the report is that there are challenges to providing fire protection and emergency services within adequate response times in a long skinny town. The current two station set-up provides inadequately for the southern part of town and needs to be rectified. The Committee’s report provides several options, and their recommendation that the three station option be pursued.

The Select Board unanimously supported the article. Robie Hubley commended the committee’s work and talked of visiting Vernon, Conn., when interviewing Larry Shaffer, and seeing the new fire station and emergency center built there under his tenure. Hubley said that made him confident that Shaffer knew his way around this kind of financing plan. Alice Carlozzi, Finance Committee chair, said they too were unanimous in their recommendation for support, and appreciated this step as a progress report and chance for TM to express opinions.

A member then moved to divide the motion – any member’s prerogative if the sense of the article lends itself to division. This one divided easily into A and B – receiving the report, and having the Town Manager create financing plans. We quickly vote on the first part, and the vote to receive the report is unanimous. On to the second part.

A member sought to amend the motion, eliminating the part that asks for a plan for a two station concept, leaving only the three station option on the table. He tells a story about a bad fire in his apartment building in South Amherst in 1987, and how it took the fire department more than 7 minutes to arrive because of traffic downtown, how much worse the fire was because of the delay, and how scary it was to imagine a loved one being trapped in the fire.

Several people spoke against the motion to amend, saying that presenting plans for both options would be instructive. After some procedural confusion about which order to vote on the motions (and did this meet the inscrutable requirements of “voting the higher number first?” – it did not,) we vote on the amendment. It fails in a voice vote. I didn’t vote (I was still taking notes at that moment, and somehow spaced on the voting) but I had intended to not support it. I do feel like the three station concept is almost a foregone conclusion – or should be – so I kind of liked cutting to the chase and sparing the Town Manager’s time by not going through the motions of creating a two station financing plan. But I was persuaded by the arguments that the comparison of the two will be instructive. When the contentious issue of funding this comes before TM, one expensive three station plan would be easy to ridicule. Comparing it to a less-expensive but less-optimal two station plan will provide perspective and help frame the argument in terms of X-dollars buying Y-additional coverage, and whether it is more worth saving or spending that difference.

A member then complained about the irresponsibility of any such plan when we’re already looking at another significant budget shortfall, and we have other capital needs. He then invoked that familiar TM refrain – “Make the colleges pay!” Just think of all we could do if they – read: UMass – paid their “fair share.”

A few questions about timing on the project (we’re in year 2 of a multi-year timeline – what happens when depends which option we pursue,) and which maps show which options, and why some options aren’t even being considered (some options were immediate no-gos because they defied national standards and practices or involved locations with traffic impracticalities) and then we voted. The Yes votes were overwhelming, with just a few scattered No votes. I voted Yes.

Article 16 sought to create an emergency access bylaw whereby new and renovated buildings – except single-family dwellings – with supervised alarm systems would be required to install lockboxes with necessary keys or access codes, enabling the Fire Department to gain entry. Currently they either have to wait for a key holder to show up, which wastes a ton of the Fire Department’s time, or they have to break down a door or window, which costs the building owner a lot of money to fix. Both the Select Board and Finance Committee were in unanimous support. There were a couple of questions from the body about whether the Police Department could access the boxes also (no) and whether the Fire Department rather than the building owner should initiate the annual inspections (apparently not – no one opted to respond to this suggestion) and we quickly voted unanimously to support this. So quickly did we vote in fact, that some people were confused and thought the vote was about calling the question, but that hadn’t happened, so it wasn’t.

On to Article 17 – making non-permitted, hence illegal, open burning a ticketable offense. This is intended as a deterrent against and punishment for student bonfires. The SB supports it. The FC supports it. A couple of members support it for its very obviousness. Then other members talk about Native American ceremonies, the role of fire in human history, and the pleasures of playing guitar around fires in the woods back in college, or toasting marshmallows with your kids, and suddenly it appears that in Amherst illegal burning is considered a civil right. So passionate are these bonfire devotees that we actually have a counted standing vote on calling the question, which requires 2/3 majority. It passes 90 Yes, 31 No. We then immediately have a standing vote on the main motion. It too passes 93 Yes, 30 No. I vote Yes to both.

Article 18 – the end is in sight! This is a technicality – granting an easement for wires and cables to connect to the cell phone tower being erected on Pulpit Hill Road. Everything about the cell phone tower and its contract are a done deal. This is just to grant the necessary but overlooked easement. SB and FC support it. Members are concerned that we got shafted in the deal with Verizon, and we ought to be soaking this rich company. "Too late" is the response. Giant ovation (thank goodness!) for DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring, recently back from National Guard duty in Iraq, who explains that we get the money from Verizon, plus 50% of additional antenna rentals on the tower, which together may total up to $60,000 per year if fully-utilized. The Town also gets to use the tower for its own antennas, and gets a storage facility. We vote. It gets nearly unanimous support, with the requisite couple of Nos thrown in for good measure.

And then at about 9:15, the fall Town Meeting was dissolved.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Updated attendance and voting results

The attendance and tally vote records have been updated to reflect the 11/8 session. They are sorted by name, by precinct, and by vote.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

A productive and drama-free evening

Back to the business of the Town, rather than the World.

To start the meeting, Anne Awad of the Select Board moved to put the remaining articles back in their numerical order, overriding the various rearrangements we made October 30th. The vote in support of the motion was unanimous.

Article 6: Saving the Kimball House on North East Street – this article sought to authorize the Select Board to enter into both a compensation agreement and a mitigation agreement with the State’s Department of Agricultural Resources to make amends for the highly-unusual effort to remove previously-designated Agricultural Preservation Restriction land from that status in order to compromise with the new owners of an historic property. They had wanted to demolish their 200-year-old house and replace it with a new one, but after much hew and cry have agreed to preserve the building’s exterior and some of the surrounding landscape, provided they could instead build elsewhere on the property. Because the spot they desire is APR-protected, the Town needs to get that development-preventing restriction removed, something the State does not take lightly. Hence, both compensation (to the tune of $211,000, based on the assessed value of the land being removed from APR for the new house) and $100,000 of mitigation (as penalty and disincentive to other communities that might consider removing an APR) are required. Of the $211K compensation, $50,000 has already been appropriated by TM from Community Preservation Act funds; the property owners have contributed another $25,000; and an 11-acre parcel that will be added to APR is valued at $8,000, leaving an outstanding balance of $128,000. This must be paid by the Town within five years, and the State has required that obligation be backed by the “full faith and credit” of the Town, meaning there is no way to avoid paying it – at the end of five years, it would be taxed back to us if unpaid. The $100K of mitigation also is due within 5 years, and while still required, lacks the “full faith and credit” vow, and can be cash, land, or a combination thereof.

Mr. Hubley introduced the article, reading a letter from the DAR about how they wouldn’t do this for just any town, but Amherst has been exemplary in creating APR land and has made a compelling case for why this house should be saved.

Jim Wald, vice chair of the Historical Commission spoke on that committee’s position, which amounts to “we must save this house.” This committee first got involved via the demolition request by the owners. There are less than a handful of brick houses from this era left in Amherst. It is special because it has never been modernized or repurposed as a business or student housing; the house and surrounding farm are a complete geographical and economic unit from the early 1800s; the big house shows that farmers were successful and well-esteemed. Much work by many has gotten us this far.

The Conservation Commission and Farm Committee both support this in the name of historic preservation. The Select Board supported it, 4-1. The Town Manager explained the whole complicated situation quite clearly, and emphasized that you only get one chance to save a house like this. The Finance Committee voted 3-1 not to recommend the article, though they were torn and an earlier vote had been to support. Their concerns were the high price and the debt obligation.

Much thoughtful discussion and questioning ensued. A member of the Community Preservation Act Committee explained that there is a mandated 10% minimum of CPA funds that must be put toward historic preservation every year, and we typically do more than that. He explained that with the CPA surcharge increase approved by voters this week, that 10% will be around $60,000 per year, which is higher than the $45,000 annual amount the debt would require if no gifts or land were part of the deal, assuring the body that the funding was comfortably within the means of CPA. Another person was concerned that this was a slippery slope and that we might be setting a precedent where we will be obligated to people who threaten to demolish historic homes. There were questions about if CPA didn’t want to fund this in future years (seems unlikely, says CPAC) and Finance Director John Musante explained that even if the town had to pay all of it from taxation, it would amount to an average of $7 per household per year for five years. The “minority report” from the dissenting Select Board member was that it was too much money for what the Town “gets;” if the house burned down we’d have spent the money for nothing. She also warned of unknown potential needs competing for CPA funds.

Eventually the vote was called. It was a counted standing vote – 102 Yes, 32 No.

This was an interesting issue and the vote definitely broke along very different lines than those that often divide the body. Standing votes give instant feedback about who is voting how, though except for watching video of the meeting, no permanent record of the vote exists.

I voted in support. This is one of those rare votes where you really do only get one chance. If TM did not approve this, the house would be demolished, and that’s it. It’s not like a defeated zoning proposal that could come back to Town Meeting in the future. One shot – keep it or lose it. I’m glad we kept it.

Article 10 sought to create an Agricultural Commission. All relevant boards and committees supported it. This amounts to a name change for the Farm Committee, and because it would be created by TM, only TM could dissolve it, as opposed to the Select Board now holding that power. The State is encouraging towns to have these, giving them more clout and more grant opportunities. The Ag Commission would be strictly advisory, just like the Farm Committee is now; it would have no binding authority. A few questioners wanted clarity on small details, and then we voted nearly unanimously in support.

Article 11 was about potential zoning changes in the Main and High Street area, but the final plan and recommendation are still in the works, so the Planning Board asked that it be referred back to them and it was.

Article 12 was another potential zoning change related to updating the farmland conservancy overlay district to bring it back into compliance with its original intents, but it too is still being worked on, and again the PB requested and received its referral back.

Article 13 was another zoning change, this one seeking to remove the Wetlands District designation from the zoning bylaw. The Planning Board argued that: it was obsolete in so far as the locations it designates don’t match up with current wetlands; and it is illegal because its criteria amount to a “floating” zone, one for whom hard lines can’t be drawn on a map, which violates the regulation that all zoning be approved by a 2/3 majority of TM. The PB said that wetlands laws and protection processes are very strong and binding and the existence of this designation or the lack thereof, neither strengthens nor weakens wetland protection – it just confuses the issues.

Those opposing the change argued that it is misunderstood and should be enforced, and that contrary to claims it hasn’t been used in all its time on the books, it actually appears on many maps. They argued that the designation is intended to “give teeth” to the conservation regulations and serve as a red flag that property owners should consult with the Conservation Commission.

These arguments were countered by those saying that just because the designation appears on maps, it doesn’t mean it is “used,” – they just keep being carried forward on maps, but they are not a determinant of the existence of wetlands. It was also argued that the suggested interpretation that the designation notifies owners to seek Conservation Commission consultation has that process backwards.

Ultimately, arguments from the Planning Board and Planning Department that this is not a useful or used designation, arguments from Town Counsel that the designation amounts to an illegal “floating zone,” and arguments from the Conservation Commission that this designation has no impact on their work, proved more persuasive than the arguments in opposition. With a motion to refer this back to the Planning Board defeated, a tally vote on the main motion which required 2/3 majority passed with 107 Yes votes and 23 No votes.

The meeting adjourned until Monday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Voting and attendance results

Here are the attendance records and tally vote results, sorted by name, by precinct, and by vote.

Update: These results detail only those votes that went to a tally. Tally votes are the only way people's individual votes are recorded. To summarize, every motion to dismiss was defeated and the main motion on every article passed, but only two of each had tally votes, and those are the results contained in these links.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

One for the ages

This time I’ll start at the end and circle back to the beginning.

Just before the meeting ended, I addressed the body for the first time ever. I would have done it sooner in the evening, but the fast and furious pace at which the previous questions were being moved was such that I could scarcely pause my rabid note-taking and put down my pen to raise my hand before we were voting again. So there I was, better late than never, but just barely.

I begin with this because what I said – or more accurately, what I was trying to say – sums up the conundrum of the entire evening for me, and explains why I voted the way I did.

This of course was the “Special Special,” where we were addressing four articles on “matters of universal import” – the genocide in Darfur, the war in Iraq, the potential for war in Iran, and impeaching Bush and Cheney.

While these sorts of “advisory articles” are a fixture of (or a cliché of, depending on your view point) Amherst Town Meeting, they still create much consternation. A significant number of people, members and non-members alike, think it is not appropriate for Town Meeting to deal with such topics. I am firmly in that camp. Among the reasons cited by people who feel as I do: they take up time that should be spent on town business, they lengthen an already-very lengthy process, the enormity of the time commitment keeps good people from serving on TM, we weren’t elected to enact foreign policy, we often lack the expertise to think or vote critically on the issues, passing such articles has no effect, etc. The list is long, and encompasses a wide range of often-divergent opinions on the subject.

So I object to such articles in concept, as noted above, and in practice. How am I supposed to vote on an article that I don’t believe even belongs before the body? If I think it is inappropriate for Town Meeting to be dealing with X, then what am I to do?

There are, as best I can tell, six options – move to dismiss, move to amend, vote yes, vote no, abstain from voting, or stay home.

Moving to dismiss is nearly perfect – and bless Peter Blier’s heart, he did exactly that, and eloquently so. More about that later. I say “nearly perfect” because if it fails (spoiler alert: it failed. Every time.) then you are still stuck needing to make another choice.

Moving to amend might work if the circumstances were such that you could somehow alter the article to make appropriate what had been inappropriate. I can’t even come up with a scenario where that could happen, so that’s not really an option.

Voting yes just rubs me entirely the wrong way. I can’t support that which I don’t even think should be here, regardless of how I, in a non-TM context, feel about the sentiments expressed by the article.

Voting no is the option I chose. I will elaborate more on that shortly.

Abstaining would seem like the best option, except that I really am a stickler for rules and procedures, and the fact is that the Town Meeting Handbook states: “Failure to vote implies acquiescence in the majority opinion.” So in this case, that would feel to me like a vote of support.

Staying home is just not an option I could choose – sorely tempted though I may be.

The problem common to these last four options is that they are all ambiguous and open to interpretation. It would be erroneous, for instance, to draw the conclusion that TM supports these advisory articles just because they all passed. It would also be erroneous to conclude that there are X-number of people on TM who think genocide in Darfur is just fine, since they voted to oppose that article. People who feel the same as I do about these articles not belonging at TM made every one of those four choices. In the absence of a clear option, each of us was left trying to determine how best to represent our sentiments and what our choice would mean.

So I chose to vote no, opting to hang the rationale for my vote not on the substance of the articles but on the procedural boilerplate preceding each one. It reads: “To see if the Town will adopt the following resolution:” Since I don’t want the town to adopt the resolution – nay, I don’t even want the town to be dealing with the resolution – a no vote felt good enough. But this is not an obvious or easy choice, and it might not even be a logical choice. I have heard persuasive arguments on all sides. To me it was the best of a bunch of bad options.

My point is that voting isn’t supposed to be like this, and yet, here we are.

Thus was the complicated and unsatisfying “reasoning” that guided my voting.

So let’s go back to the beginning of this meeting, ’cuz it was a doozy.

We got started at about 7:45. The usual procedural stuff and announcements. Reordering of tonight’s articles, to proceed as 1, 4, 3, 2. Much haggling about why we were doing this meeting now instead of the other meeting, why we’re in conflict with the final gubernatorial debate, etc. And the dullness of all that must have lulled me to sleep, because next thing I knew I was having the most bizarre dream that Select Board member Rob Kusner was wearing a t-shirt with a caricature of George Bush on it, in brazen violation of the “no electioneering/political influencing” rule that the moderator had made clear last meeting and just reiterated tonight. And then – this is where the dream got really nuts – the moderator asked to see the shirt, and Rob took it off while the moderator was ordering him not to, and then Rob, who conveniently just happened to be wearing another t-shirt underneath the Bush one, threw the offending shirt at the moderator, and pandemonium nearly ensued. Gavels were banging, Rob was being weirdly belligerent, the moderator nearly threw him out of the meeting, and it was as though they might come to blows. So then a recess is called and those two go behind the curtain and… No more spicy food for me before Town Meeting, no siree.

Actually, all that was true and it was disgraceful. I was shocked and disappointed that Rob would disrespect his office, the meeting, the moderator and the decorum of the body that way. I will assume that his interpretation of those events is not the same as mine, and if he wants to offer an explanation, I’m sure many of us would be very interested in what he has to say. But mostly, I think we would like an apology.

Moving on.

Article 1. Darfur. The petitioner speaks briefly to her motion and then brings in a gentleman who has lived in Amherst since 1994, after fleeing violence and torture in Sudan. He spoke about the horrors of the situation there and why sanctions and other non-military pressures are necessary, because militarization would harm the people and increase their suffering. Anne Awad spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous support for the article. Cited many problems the international community ignored in the past: this is oportunity to give our conscience some protection.

How courageous must you be, and how secure must you be in the reasoning of your argument to get up there after that poor man has described horrible suffering, and move to dismiss this article?

Pretty damned courageous and secure, I’d say.

That’s just what Peter Blier did, and that’s why I believe we should have a tickertape parade in his honor downtown, name a few streets after him and give him a free bus pass.

This was a gutsy move, and he did it with a thoughtfulness and respect that few could manage. Bravo Peter!

He described his strong belief in the sentiments of the articles, and how he agonized over making this motion, but feels strongly that such topics are not the business of Town Meeting. His reasons for dismissal: that our priority should be the town’s business, and that if we are to go beyond the warrant it should be to address local problems that linger and loom; that New England’s long history of addressing such things at TM is not analogous to now, because that used to be the way to express the town’s sentiment and relay information, but today there are many and better options; that the time commitment for TM is onerous enough and precludes participation for many; and that such actions make us feel good but have no real effect, so as individuals we should find ways that are effective instead of holding the false satisfaction of having “acted” here.

The petitioner responded. She disagrees. Thinks it is appropriate, important, effective. The line that spoke to many of us, though not as she intended it, was something like: “There are many people here who know as much about Darfur as they know about local issues.” Indeed. Someone calls the question. We have a tally vote on the motion to dismiss: 53 Yes, 83 No. Dismissal fails; back to the main motion. The question is immediately called again. Overwhelming yes vote, a couple of no votes.

Article 4 – withdrawal from Iraq. Introduced by one person, elaborated on by another. Lies and misrepresentations by the administration. So many deaths. So many casualties. So much suffering and long repercussions. Costs a ton of money. Gerry Weiss speaks to the Select Board’s 4-1 support. War is awful. Please vote to send this message.

This time Joe Bodin moved to dismiss this article, on the grounds that next week we’ll have a ballot question that is nearly identical and the results will be more representative because every voter can make their choice, not just us. The original speaker disagreed: to not vote would be to shirk our responsibility. Someone calls the question. The vote to dismiss is defeated. Mr. Bodin then moves to amend the article to ensure that the results contain a count of the vote. After some ditzing around, the question is called. The vote to amend to include the vote tally succeeds. (I voted yes to this just because. Was there a strategic or ideological way to vote here? I dunno.) Back to the now-amended main motion. Someone speaks in opposition to the article about how this vote would show weakness and that would embolden our enemy. Call the question. Tally vote on the article: 86 Yes, 20 No.

Article 3 – Iran. Two people address this jointly, a husband and wife who went to Iran in the spring as part of a peace delegation. War would be terrible for the people of the country. The people are just like us, kids just like ours. Need to establish diplomatic relations and create diplomatic solutions. Rob Kusner spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous vote in support of the article. War is bad. We need diplomacy. Go slowly. Learn the lessons of Iraq war and absence of diplomacy with North Korea.

Blier moved to dismiss again, saying the reasons were identical to the ones stated previously and he supports the spirit of the article but doesn’t believe this is the time or the place for it. The original speaker disagrees. The speaker who opposed withdrawal from Iraq opposes this article even more vehemently. The question gets called. The tally vote on the motion to dismiss fails, 53 Yes and 76 No. The question is called on the original motion. It passes overwhelmingly and without a tally vote.

Article 2 – Impeachment. The petitioner clarifies the less obvious points in the long “where as” list of the article, speaking to the nitty-gritty of why wire tapping laws were broken, why as commander-in-chief the President can be held responsible for torture, and how he has violated different separations of power. Anne Awad spoke for the Select Board’s unanimous vote, believing that such abuses do have local affect. Someone with an impressive background in high-level government law spoke in support. Blier moved to dismiss. It fails again. I offered my two cents about no good voting option for those like me. The question was called for the final time, and the final tally vote was 85 Yes and 29 No.

As a body, we either sent strong clear messages to the world and did our part to help effect change, or we accomplished zip. I sure think it’s the latter, but I’d love to be wrong.

Later this afternoon, (it’s almost 4 a.m. – uggh.) I’ll put up some attendance and tally vote info. Even though the muddiness of the voting leaves its interpretation highly suspect, I can’t resist looking at it.

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